Why you should forget your 'right to be forgotten'

An Orwellian court decision in the European Union forces search engine companies to alter history by deleting certain links. The ruling is a threat to your right to know specifics about the past and to the Internet itself.

right to be forgotten
Credit: IEEE Spectrum

The European Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling last May, and it stated that in certain circumstances Google (and other search engine companies) must remove links to people's personal information if the details are "inaccurate, inadequate or no longer relevant." The ruling sparked the concept of "the right to be forgotten."

What a terrible mistake. Despite its arguably good intentions, the court's action is a potentially devastating blow to the general public's right to know. It also gives a handful of companies the power to decide which specific bits of history should be unwritten. George Orwell is often quoted out of context, but in this case a line from "1984" seems fitting: "He who controls the past, controls the future."

This whole thing could get out of control in a hurry. One day after the ruling went into effect, Google received 12,000 requests to remove links. Last week, the search giant disclosed that it has received 218,427 requests to date, relating to a total of 789,496 links — and deleted 264,450. Microsoft and Yahoo also received thousands of requests.

There's an even worse scenario on the horizon. What's to stop other countries from adopting their own standards? At least the 28 countries in the European Union are (more or less) speaking with one voice. Other countries may well have different standards, and they could attempt to strong arm search companies into complying.

We could have a checkerboard of standards across the globe that will severely damage one of the Internet's defining features: universal access to information. Sure, countries such as China and North Korea already stop their citizens from obtaining information on the Web, but they are relatively rare examples.

It's easy to be misled on this issue. After all, privacy — on the Web, in the home or the in workplace — is a right most of us cherish. It's a right that's violated all the time by technology companies, advertisers and the government. I've certainly done my share of ranting about that issue, but erasing the past does not enhance our privacy. In many cases, deleting old information that pertains to a single individual hurts no one, and the banished bits will never be missed. But not always.

The case that triggered the ruling illustrates its absurdity. The ruling concerned a specific request by a Spanish citizen, Mario Costeja González. His name featured prominently in Google search because of two foreclosure notices published in 1998 when his property was repossessed for debt. Gonzalez didn't claim that the links led to anything false, defamatory or were the fruit of a theft. He simply didn't want people to see those results because he was no longer in debt and thought his reputation would suffer until the notices were banished.

I understand his feelings, and I know a lot of politicians and business people who think incidents from their past are "no longer relevant," because now they're such fine fellows. However, I feel that I have a right to know something about their histories if they want me to vote for them or do business with their companies. Why is their right to be forgotten more important than my right to know?

Google says it weighs requests for link removal carefully and could turn down a request from some shady character whose misdeeds need to be known. But maybe it won't. We simply don't know. I strongly suspect Google would like this whole issue to disappear. The company probably doesn't want to be forced to censor history. Unfortunately, it's out of Google's hands, for now.

It's generally a good thing when people get additional rights, but inventing absurd rights is a whole different story. 

This story, "Why you should forget your 'right to be forgotten'" was originally published by CIO.

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